Residents and visitors looking to hike and swim in the VINP last week were met with yellow tape, barriers and signs announcing the park closure.
After five full days, the V.I. National Park officially re-opened at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, October 6, to the delight of tourists and locals alike.
While Love City is far removed from Washington, D.C., when the federal government failed to pass a budget on Tuesday morning, October 1, the Department of Interior was one of the casualties, forcing the closure of VINP.
“The park is in the process of effecting an orderly shutdown,” said VINP Superintendent Brion Fitzgerald, the morning of October 1, before he was furloughed. “That means the closure of all park facilities, lands and waters. People in the park will be asked to leave.”
A total of 46 of the VINP’s 50 employees were put on furlough, the Visitor’s Center in Cruz Bay was shuttered, the hiking paths and beaches were off-limits, bathrooms were locked, yellow caution tape was strung up to block access to parking lots and wooden barriers were placed to keep people off the beaches.
VINP was just one of the 401 National Park Service areas that were affected by the federal government shutdown. But on an island where the park spans almost 60 percent of the land and is central to many people’s livelihoods, the closure sparked fierce debate and outrage.
Using social media, and quoting the Virgin Islands Coastal Zone Management Act, a group of like-minded citizens first questioned whether the closure was legal. Since the CZM Act pertains only to territorial land, VINP Deputy Superintendent Mike Anderson said last week’s park closure was indeed a legal move.
Undeterred, the group had organized a “sit-in” beach party at Maho Bay set for Sunday, October 6. When the park opened several hours before the planned demonstration, the “sit-in” part of the beach party was no longer needed.
Also reeling from the affects of the federal government closure were residents who rely on the territory’s Women’s Infants and Children Program. The program was defunded on October 1, but received contingency funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition program on Thursday October 3.
Business owners who operate in VINP were also told to pack it up last week.
“Virgin Islands Ecotours had suspended five daily Guided Eco adventures,” said VI Ecotours owner Sybille Sorrentino. “Our Honeymoon Beach Watersports Center that provides snorkel gear, kayak, raft, lounge chair and SUP rentals is closed because it is located within Caneel Bay Resort inside the VI National Park. Several employees will not be working until the shutdown ends.”
Couples expecting to exchange vows in paradise, some with family members in tow, were forced to make other plans.
While many people seemed to defy the VINP closure — warning tape and barricades were routinely torn down and moved — enforcement rangers asked people to leave and no one was issued a citation as of press time.
The hope that the shutdown would not last long was shared by many people on St. John last week.
“This has happened a few different times in my career and it’s different every time,” said Fitzgerald. “Our concerns are for our employees on furlough and also the local businesses that are affected by the closure. Fortunately for us we are still in a slower season, but we’re concerned about this.”
Of the 50 VINP employees, only two enforcement rangers, a wastewater treatment employee and Deputy Superintendent Anderson who served as a point of contact re,ained on dfuty. Except for the lifeguards at Trunk Bay beach, VINP employees were expected to remain furloughed this week.
The VINP Visitors Center, Annaberg Plantation and hiking trails that do not lead to beaches remained closed last week.